Wednesday, November 18, 2015

DISPATCH FROM A WAR ZONE: Three Days of Official Mourning in Paris

Mairie du 6e arrondissement lit up in the colors of the tricolore, the French flag. © Joan Schenkar
By Joan Schenkar

Always at their best in a crisis, Parisians have opened their hearts in the aftermath of Friday's horrific attacks.

My quartier, the golden 6ème on the rive gauche — still a magnet for writers and artists despite the luxe — is once again a village: encircled by sympathy and contracted in concern.

We are all asking each other how we are; if we are well. But who can be well just now?

Five hundred people doing what Paris was made for — dining out, enjoying a concert in a venerable venue, flirting, strolling, saturating their senses with the city's luscious tastes and lustrous textures — were mowed down in moments on Friday night, November 13, 2015.

As of today, 129 are gone. Most of them not yet thirty years old.

What follows are dispatches from the war zone that is Paris: quick sketches and fleeting vignettes written over three days of official mourning  and in the aftershock of unimaginable acts.

They are out of chronological order, because I am out of order. And so I should be: Hell is empty and the devils are here.

Sunday: the second day of mourning for the victims of Friday's dastardly attack. I see that the "Christmas Village" — the quaint log cabanons meant to hold holiday wares and surrounded by dwarf Christmas trees silvered by chemistry — are going up on my local square, the Place St-Sulpice. Christmas, at least, has not been cancelled.
Christmas Village going up on the Place St-Sulpice. © Joan Schenkar
On Monday morning, the Christmas Village is back in pieces again and being loaded on to lorries. Christmas has been cancelled for now.
Christmas Village being taken down. © Joan Schenkar
The Jardin du Luxembourg — where I go to walk and think every day (it's a writers' paradise and the writers here are easily spotted: we are the people mumbling phrases aloud as we vainly search our packs and pockets for the pens and portable notebooks we left behind on our desks) is shut down for the weekend. Along with every other public space.
Closed: The Jardin du Luxembourg.
Department stores, museums, markets, parks, gardens — all are barred. But my pocketbook is always open: we are being searched at every portal — and that's probably a good thing.

The last time I remember the Luxembourg being closed was in the aftermath of the violent Christmas storm of 1999 that ushered in this disconcerting century. 10,000 tress went down in Versailles in 1999 — and perhaps 400 more in the Luxembourg.
Restoration of the Luxembourg Gardens after the Christmas storm of 1999.
The  number of trees toppled in the Luxembourg is still less than the number of people shot in seven separate attack on the rive droit on Friday night. None of these figures is comforting.

Because the gates of the Luxembourg are locked, I walk around it. Gingerly, on the sidewalk, making no sentences at all.
On Saturday, I stop at my favorite neighborhood wine store, La Dernière Goutte, where Patty Lurie, the resident astrologer-cum-wine-seller, tailors her recommendations to your personality and your pocketbook.

Patty, trapped in the 10ème on Friday, spent half the night on someone's floor, the other half on a sofa. Strangers were opening their doors to strangers who couldn't go home.

The French are buying a lot of wine — a rational response to terror — and Patty says they're staying home to drink it. So am I. This is not the weekend for going out.

My telephone company has picked this moment to disconnect my landline, my only public telephone. It's the usual French bureaucratic error at the worst possible time.

So I use my internet phone to call the Fauchier Delavignes in Normandy. Their ancestor, Casimir Delavigne, one of the five French playrights for whom the five Paris streets radiating out from the Théâtre de l'Odéon is named, has a likely heir in the eldest Fauchier Delavigne son Jean — who continues the family tradition as writer and director for his Ferme Théâtre de Varembert.
Théâtre de l'Odéon.
Three of the five French playrights for whom the five Paris streets around the Théâtre de l'Odéon are named.
Claudie and Hervé are occupied, as always, with charitable works: the horticultural school Hervé's grandfather established in 1928 in the Priory owned by the family in Saint-Gabriel. And Hervé is full of social theories as to the origins of Friday's attack.
Ecole d'Horticulture in Saint-Gabriel.
Claudie learns on Sunday that her cousin's son, Valentin Ribet, a young anti-corruption lawyer trained at the London School of Economics, died protecting his female companion at the Bataclan. His body was the first to be identified.

Everyone has been touched, in one way or another, by Friday's monstrous acts.

In calmer times, in the library of the Fauchier Delavigne's historic house in Cannes, I've been thrilled to hold in my hands original letters written by Colette and Marguerite Moréno to Hervé's great-aunt, the Belle Epoque salonnière, Mme. Fauchier-Magnan. I wish we were in calmer times now.

Although what the tabloids would call "an eerie calm" seems to have settled over the city for the weekend, we've been told to avoid the rive droite: one of the terrorists may still be at large there.
The Seine from the rive droite.
Monday afternoon: I talk to my wonderful neighbor Mme. Leonetti. Nearing her centenary (the 90s are merely late middle age in Paris, though it never does matter to be too precise about numbers here), she was meant to be a concert violinist, but ended up the propriétaire and chef of a  popular restaurant, Chez Georgie, on the Place Vendôme for forty years. Widowed now, she knew everyone, did everything, and lived it up without writing it down.

Au courant as ever, Mme. Leonetti stayed awake all Friday night to follow the reports of the dreadful attacks.
My wonderful neighbor, Mme. Leonetti. © Joan Schenkar
On Monday night, I dined with my friend, Philippe Apeloig, France's renowned graphic artist, at a favorite small restaurant in the 6ème. (It will be nameless here, as I'd like to continue to reserve tables there myself.)

Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher hypermarchè in January, Philippe and I have been trying to imagine what terrible thing would happen next; hoping our conversations would have an apotropaic effect. Clearly, we hoped in vain.
Graphic artist, Philippe Apeloig.
And none of our imaginings extended to Friday night's very specific devastations.

Up and down the rue de Seine, and on the corner of the rue du Buci, someone has posted copies of a famous paragraph by Albert Camus  about courage in the face of terror.
The Camus Quote posted on the rue de Seine. © Joan Schenkar
It begins conventionally enough: "C'est pour cet avenir unimaginable, mais proche, que nous devons nous organiser et nous tenir les coudes." "Tenir les coudes" means "stick together." Yes, I think: that is apt.

And then I think of Michel Houllebecq's political satire, Soumission. (Submission, in the English translation.) Published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre (Houllebecq had to go into hiding), it imagines a slightly future France governed by a traditionalist Muslim party upheld by the French Socialists and what Gore Vidal loved to call "the plywood-panelled Halls of Academe." That, too, is apt.
Michel Houellebecq.
Early Saturday morning, I take one of my favorite walks: down the rue de Seine, past Voltaire's grinning statue (one of five Voltaires in Paris) and the Académie Française, and across the Pont des Arts (the Tour Eiffel to my left, the Ile de la Cité to my right, the Seine everywhere else).
The Statue of Voltaire on the rue de Seine. © Joan Schenkar
Academies Française with the Cupola for the Forty "immortals." © Joan Schenkar
Ile de la Cité to the right of the Pont des Arts. © Joan Schenkar
And the Eiffel Tower to the left. © Joan Schenkar
The thickets of lovelocks choking and sinking the Pont des Arts and blanking the view — they are grotesque enough to make any sensible person renounce the idea of love forever — have been snipped from the bridge at last. I step off the bridge directly in front of the Cour Carrée of The Louvre on the rive droite.
The Pont des Arts with those hideous love padlocks.
The Cour Carrée — the great open space in the middle of the temple of art and pickpocketing that is The Louvre — is where I like to go to refine my feelings. Something about standing in the center of its perfected square organizes the world for me. But today, like all public spaces, the Cour Carrée is barred. And the Tour Eiffel is closed indefinitely.
Cour Carre of The Louvre, locked and barred. © Joan Schenkar
I hear from Jean-Paul Caracalla: another wonderful friend in his 90s, and a much-loved editor at Denoël for decades. He is the author of many delightful books about Paris and has been Secretary-General of the Prix Deux Magots (the literary prize given every year by my favorite Paris café, Les Deux Magots) since 1972. He says his morale is in his "chausettes." I know just what he means.
Jean-Paul Caracalla.
Paris is under martial law for the first time since 1944. Although I'd hoped  to be back in New York for the Monday opening of Todd Haynes's film CAROL (I'm working on a history of THE PRICE OF SALT, the extraordinary novel by Patricia Highsmith from which the film was adapted) I find I can't leave Paris just now. It's too much like leaving a wounded friend behind on the battlefield: an act of inconceivable treachery.

And so I shall stay here for another week, feeling — as I always feel — deeply privileged to be in Paris at any time, and for any reason.
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